St Cuthbert and a Few Thoughts about Europe Today

Many years ago I took as my Special Subject in Part II of the Cambridge Historical Tripos the Church in Northumbria. That meant I spent long hours reading non-Classical Latin texts and looking at photographs of MSS, sculptures and precious atrefacts of the period, none more precious (or interesting) than those associated with St Cuthbert. As a young nun, I was thrilled to read a report from the General Chapter of the English Benedictine Congregation asking whether any of the current monks knew the whereabouts of St Cuthbert’s remains (the so-called Secret or Legend of St Cuthbert) and was disappointed that no-one did. What impressed me powerfully about Cuthbert himself, however, was what most historians merely allude to in passing: his gifts as a reconciler. He was brought up in the Celtic tradition but was instrumental in persuading the monks of Lindisfarne — most of them, anyway — to accept Roman usages. No mean feat when one considers the personality of St Wilfrid, the champion of Roman orthodoxy. And to anyone who has lived in a monastery, little short of a miracle.

That is one reason I find St Cuthbert very helpful when considering the problems engulfing Europe at the moment. We need more than goodwill to solve the difficulties that face us, especially those that have assumed tragic dimensions.

There is the humanitarian tragedy of the migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers being washed up on our shores. The photographs published yesterday of little Aylan Kurdi dead on the Turkish seashore touched the hearts and imaginations of many. They didn’t tell us anything we did not already know, but they provided an image, a simple and arresting image, we could all relate to. Suddenly a vast and seemingly intractable problem had a human face and there were calls for action such as we had not heard before. There is also the humanitarian tragedy lurking behind the economic tragedy that is Greece, the humanitarian tragedy lurking behind the political tragedy that is Ukraine, and the tragedy of the failure of Europe as a whole to cope with any of these.

As long as we continue to think about the challenges we face as abstractions, we are never going to find solutions. Cuthbert in Lindisfarne had to use every gift of mind and heart to win others over to his way of thinking. He saw people where others might have seen merely ‘difficult monks’; he appealed, he urged, he ordered, like the exemplary abbot in the Rule of St Benedict, but he did so with great charm and genuine concern for those he served. He made sacrifices; he asked sacrifices of others. We in Europe will have to do the same. It is no good saying, for example, that the Gulf States should ‘do something’ about the Syrian refugees trying to make their way to Germany; no good saying Greece ‘must accept’ reforms imposed by others; no good demanding that President Putin change his tone about Ukraine. There has to be a consent won from those whose help or co-operation is needed. In the meantime, whenever we see someone go hungry or thirsty and do nothing to help, we see Christ go hungry and thirsty. Let us not abandon Him in our suffering brothers and sisters.

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Broken Dreams

The people of Thailand awoke this morning to find that they are under martial law, although the Army has denied anything as definite as a military coup. The situation in Ukraine seems ever more desperate; and if we look at the countries of North Africa and the Middle East, the ‘Arab Spring’ that so excited Western journalists has turned, by and large, to a bleak and unpromising winter. Not so long ago, the economic ‘growth miracles’ being hailed in Europe and the U.S.A. proved they were no such thing and ushered in a long and dreary period of financial failure and business collapse. Yet still we dream of a better tomorrow. The shape our dream takes is determined by our own ambitions, fears, desires, but the common element is always that the future will be an improvement on the present.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it can make us complacent or unappreciative of the present. Christians are not immune. As we look forward with hope to eternal life, we can ignore or pay too little attention to what is happening here and now. The ‘sacrament of the present moment’ is one we must all learn to celebrate. We cannot live in the past nor in the future: now is all we have, so we must make sure it is a good ‘now’ — not in any self-indulgent, vapid way, but as the time given us for a reason and a purpose.

St Benedict, as you might expect, has quite a lot to say on this subject. Today, for example, in RB 4. 22–43, he lists among the tools of good works several that concern inner and outer truthfulness and control over one’s appetites. We cannot put off doing good till tomorrow: our salvation must be worked out today. There is an urgency about his insistence on living virtuously because it affects not just us but everyone with whom we come into contact. His prayer towards the end of the Rule is that we may all be brought to everlasting life (RB 72.12). All, without exception. That is a big dream to have, and one that, please God, will not end as broken.

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From Big Bangs to Little Whimpers

Yesterday was one of those curious days one suspects will prove more important than anyone realised at the time. On the one hand, there was the public announcement that an American team working on the BICEP2 project had found a residual marker for cosmic inflation (see the brief BBC report here); on the other, President Putin signed an order recognizing Crimean independence and approved a draft bill on the absorption of the peninsula into the Russian Federation. The contrast between the excitement over extraordinary new evidence in support of the Big Bang Theory for the origin of the Universe and the sick feeling that Ukraine was being destroyed with barely a whimper could not have been more marked.

The Universe is too big a subject for most of us to grasp, but what is happening in Ukraine touches us all. There have been the inevitable sabre-rattlers with half-remembered notions of how the First and Second World Wars started, who are anxious to ‘stop Putin in his tracks’ — usually at the cost of other people’s lives. There have been the indifferentists who think the Crimea not worth bothering about and don’t mind being called ‘appeasers’ by the sabre-rattlers. Then there are those who are aware of the labyrinthine ties between Russia and Ukraine, Russia and Crimea, and the economic and political mess Ukraine is in whatever the outcome of the present difficulty. Western politicians, by and large, simply don’t ‘get’ the complexity of the situation, tending instead to see everything through the lens of their own experience.

If Syria has made us recognize how defenceless ordinary people are in the face of mutual hatred and joy in destruction, the situation in the Crimea reminds us that people may not want to live as we think they should. It is worth thinking through the implications of that and acting accordingly. We must pray for a peaceful resolution of the situation, but we should also pray that those engaged in trying to find a diplomatic solution should have the humility and generosity of spirit to recognize the right of others to live as they think best.

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Shrove Tuesday 2014

Last year, when Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had just announced his resignation, I said we faced a Shrove Tuesday like no other. I little thought that this year I would say the same. The situation in the Crimea casts a long shadow, making the delights of pancakes and carnival seem trivial by comparison, yet the more solemn aspect of the day, the going to Confession, seems especially apt. Personal sin and what one might call communal sin are related. The standards by which we live our private lives inevitably spill over into our public lives. I am sure we can all think of instances of greed, brutality and dishonesty which first manifested themselves in domestic situations but then went on to create terror and havoc on a much larger scale.

While we pray today for the people of Ukraine we might also examine our own consciences about the ways in which we have lived a double-standard and the consequences for others of our own sins. Repentance isn’t just about saying sorry to God and having a firm purpose of amendment. It also means trying to put right what we have done wrong. Thank God we are given forty days in which to work hard at that.

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Dilemmas

I imagine every Western politician woke up this morning wondering what to do about Russia and the Crimea. Last month it may have been Syria or North Korea. Before that, Egypt. We tend to deal with difficulties and problems sequentially, dropping one when another looms into view. It is not that Iraq and Afghanistan have been ‘dealt with’, but we are collectively great believers in ‘moving on’. We have other countries in our sights now. The trail of death and destruction is one we prefer to ignore because ultimately it is traceable back to those who gave the order to mobilise the troops or clamoured for something to be done. That qualification is important because it reminds us that in a democracy we all bear a measure of responsibility, whether active or passive. We can’t distance ourselves from it simply by saying ‘not in my name’.

I mentioned a few days ago that I had been thinking about the Crimean War of the nineteenth century. I have also been thinking about the symbolic importance of Ukraine to the Russian people, about gas pipes and oil lines, and the way in which Western politicians tend very easily to assume that an uprising or protest movement will usher in something better than before. If it doesn’t, it can be forgotten, or at least allowed to slip from the headlines, e.g. Libya. Unlike many political commentators, I have no suggestions to make regarding the dilemma we face. I have only one constructive tool to offer: prayer. To some, that will seem laughable; to others, an admission of failure; but I think myself it is the most powerful thing those of us who are not movers and shakers in the accepted sense can do. Indeed, prayer has a way of upsetting the usual order of things. It can bring hope and peace out of the darkest situation. Let us pray that it does so now.

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What Price Democracy?

Recently I have been thinking a lot about the Crimean War. If you want to know why, the answer lies in what is happening in the Ukraine. The situation there is complex and disturbing, with implications for both Western Europe and Russia. Sometimes policy-makers are aware of history; sometimes they aren’t; but those who disregard history altogether tend to repeat the mistakes their predecessors made. I have a hunch we may be about to do exactly that with regard to the Ukraine.

In the West we have tendency to make an idol of democracy, but that sometimes leads us to applaud essentially undemocratic processes. I myself believe that democracy is the best form of government available to us, but I think we are often selective about the value we place on other people’s democracies. The policies of the Muslim Brotherhood do not appeal to me personally, but as a democrat, I am ambivalent about the situation in Egypt. Was Mr Morsi legitimately elected or not; and if he was, shouldn’t the West be questioning the way in which he was removed from power? Had he become a tyrant? If so, what are the grounds for thinking that, and are they sufficient to justify subsequent events? In the Ukraine we have an analogous situation. If we take all our ideas from Kiev we may take one view, but the further East we go, the more another takes shape.

At times like these we can feel confused and completely powerless, forgetting that, in fact, we are far from powerless. We can invoke the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit; but if we are to do that, it cannot be through some throw-away utterance that takes two minutes of our time and leaves not a ripple on the surface of our thoughts and feelings. Prayer is hard work; and to pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit into a complicated and dangerous situation means to pray with all our heart, mind and soul. Are we ready to do that? Or, as I ask above, what price democracy?

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